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What Happened to the Diaz Effect?

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Manny Diaz usually gives awesome Christmas presents in his first year on the job. This time around I think he let someone else do the shopping.

It has occurred to me that the way we form our expectations about things that we consume must be radically different than how we did so a few decades ago. Whereas expectation was once informed almost solely upon word of mouth, first-hand experience, and perhaps a glimpse of advertising, the information with which we are now bombarded hourly tells us exactly what we "need" to know. Cars, upcoming films or series, video games, music, appliances, food, and so on and so on.

To wit: When I was a young warthog, I’d spend much of my family-of-six’s weekly trip to our local box store on the video game aisle reading the backs of Nintendo cartridge boxes. As someone without a subscription to Nintendo Power, the two or three 1" x 1" screenshots and paragraph of buzzword gibberish was all I had to go on. And that, ladies and gents, is how I ended up with this instead of Mega Man 2:

I mean, come on, man. It’s got a freaking dragon on it, right?

Yeah, it was bad, y’all.

That would never happen today. If I was a kid now, I’d have the opportunity to read about the game’s development eighteen months before it was released, watch video previews, reviews, and post-mortems showing substantive samples of the game’s various stages, and download a demo version to play through and dwell upon before ever even getting to the point of having to think about investing in the product itself.

The hype campaign is long and tiresome. Whatever dividends you earn from your patience is accompanied by glassy eyes and a slightly numbed mind.

Our current predicament is no different when it comes to football. Former coaches, former players, analysts, strategists, recruitniks, medical experts, talk show hosts, rumor mongers, statisticians, message board heroes, messages board zeroes . . . . As much as we may try not to, we suck up their cacophony like monarchs on a milkweed. (Yes, I’m throwing out botanical similes. It’s getting serious, people.) It may just sound like harmless white noise, but it shapes the way we approach coaches and players and position units and recruiting and the schedule and everything else that swirls around the game that we hopefully still love to watch.

With that in mind, I want you to think back to early January. State’s defenders had just gotten tossed around like rag dolls in the Orange Bowl. The rumor mills were in full swing churning out complex tapestries of potential and probable candidates for the DC position.

And then there it was: Manny Diaz was coming back to State. The jilted team was ready for Round 2.

The reaction was varied. Some recalled the banner year that the defense had under Diaz in 2010 and rejoiced. Others saw what happened in years 2 and 2.2 at Texas and were angry. And still others were just sort of nonplussed—a retread is a retread is a retread.

I, for one, was fine with the move. Why?

Math.

More specifically: The Diaz Effect.

The Diaz Effect was really quite impressive. It was simple and, at that point, seemingly immutable.

What, pray, was the Diaz Effect?

It was the effect that Diaz had on each team for which he served as defensive coordinator in his first year on the job. At every school that employed him, the defense showed marked improvements during his first year.

Exhibit No. 1:

For those unfamiliar with the wonderful world of advanced statistics, go here and here to read a little more about S&P+ and FEI ratings. In a nutshell, though, a defense’s S&P+ rating measures its performance in five specific categories—efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing drives, and turnovers—based upon data culled from every snap a defense plays, and a defense’s FEI rating measures its situational and per-play efficiency at stopping offenses.

Bottom line, though, is that in each of his four previous first-go-arounds, Diaz had improved the performance of the players he inherited. And perhaps even more impressive, he seemed to be getting better at it over time. I mean, Muschamp’s last unit at Texas in 2010 wasn’t terrible by any stretch, but Diaz made it elite instantly. And to take one of the worst defenses in college football at La. Tech. and make it a Top 25 (or, per the FEI, Top 10) unit in under a year is remarkable.

Still, unless you’re even geekier than me, these new-fangled advanced stats are only so informative.

So, let’s look at Exhibit No. 2:

The Diaz in the Details

Defensive Ranks in Conference Play

MSU – ‘09/‘10

Texas – ‘10/‘11

La. Tech – ‘13/‘14

Year Before Diaz

Diaz’ First Year

Year Before Diaz

Diaz’ First Year

Year Before Diaz

Diaz’ First Year

Scoring Defense

11th

3rd

5th

2nd

9th

1st

Rushing Defense

7th

6th

3rd

1st

8th

1st

Passing Defense

10th

8th

1st

1st

7th

10th

Yards Per Play Allowed

10th

4th

1st

2nd

9th

1st

Interceptions

3rd

6th

10th

7th

1st

1st

Fumbles Gained

5th

1st

6th

9th

6th

1st

Sacks

9th

5th

6th

3rd

9th

1st

Tackles For Loss

10th

3rd

4th

1st

7th

1st

Third Down Defense

4th

2nd

3rd

2nd

12th

2nd

Red Zone Defense (TD %)

8th

1st

11th

4th

7th

1st

Well, hot damn, that’s impressive. I mean, that's improvement pretty much across the board. How does on dude make a defense better at basically everything in a matter of six or seven months? And how does he do it without having really recruited any of the players and without having any previous experience in the conference he’s tossed into? Disparate leagues and disparate talent levels on his roster, but the same results. (CFBStats, which I search to get all these glorious numbers, doesn't go back far enough to compare the specifics of Diaz' first MTSU defense to its predecessor. Sorry.)

I have no idea how he does it. But apparently this Diaz character knows what he’s doing.

So that’s the Diaz Effect. Death, taxes, and Diaz in year one. Take it to the bank.

Ok. So that’s where I was coming from earlier in the year. But let’s fast forward back to the present, right on through the herky jerky season we had on the football field.

Even though State’s defense in 2014 was, notwithstanding the second half of the Egg Bowl last year and the post-Collins Orange Bowl turd, pretty solid, I had no reason to think that we would miss out of the instant gratification of the Diaz Effect. Sure, Texas’ defense dropped off some in Diaz’ second year—it fell about 30 places in both the national S&P+ and FEI rankings in 2012—but the La. Tech. miracle had happened since then. And besides, that’s Year 2. The space-time vortex created by the Diaz Effect can’t be expected to swallow up multiple years, can it? Especially given the U.S.S. Mack Brown was slowly sinking into a chasm of historic program futility, right? (Well, historic till Charlie Strong came a’knockin, I guess.)

Did we get to witness the Diaz Effect in 2015?

Not so much:

Yikes.

Now, before getting nasty, let’s not forget that up until playing two of the best offenses in all of college football—Arkansas is the Top 5 of the national offensive S&P+ and FEI rankings, and the Rebels are in the Top 11 of both—the defense was doing some important things really well. The overall scoring defense was stout, as was the red zone defense. Even against Alabama (a Top 30 offense in the advanced stats rankings), giving up 24 points isn’t all that terrible (Bama’s first TD was on a punt return, remember). And of course the defense probably played well enough to win the LSU game, and, depending on how you look at the turnover situation vs. Texas A&M, possibly that game as well.

Also, one thing not on the chart is big-play defense. As bad as the big plays were against some opponents late in the season, we did improve over Collins' unit's performance. We were in the top half of the conference this year at preventing plays of 20+, 30+, and 40+ yards in 2015, whereas last year we were in the bottom four of the conference in each of those categories. That’s solid progress, though obviously it didn’t improve our scoring defense.

But back to the gist.

We basically got worse at everything.

Repeat: We basically got worse at everything.

I’m not writing this to vent, though. I’m just confused. What the hell happened? Diaz has worked first-year magic at every stop, including Mississippi State under Mullen. He’d done it with blue-chippers at Texas, two- and three-star talent at MTSU and La. Tech, and with State’s mixture of Croom-era recruits and early commits to Mullen. I can’t imagine that the recruiting classes that built this defense were that much worse than those that built the 2010 defense. I guess there’s the whole "returning starter" thing that our defense had going against it, but Texas in 2011 only returned six starters, so I’m not sure that explains it. Maybe a break-in period for the new hawk tackling technique? Possibly, but he taught that to his La. Tech. defense last year and they certainly seemed none the worse for it. There are also the injuries we faced in the secondary. Maybe those took more of a toll on the defense as a whole than I thought they would?

Seriously, though. I’ve got nothing to fully explain what happened.

I will say this. I’m a fan of Diaz. What he did in 2010 was impressive, especially given how lackluster our offense was that year. (Second-to-last in the SEC in both scoring offense and total offense in conference games. Don’t let your fond memory of the 2010 season cloud your opinions of our offense that year.) What he’s been able to achieve most years in his career so far is, I’m guessing, better that what many other defensive coordinators have on their resumes. And I really dig his emphasis on negative plays and havoc.

But this year, for whatever reason, and even with the benefit of playing with one of the best offenses in the conference, he just didn’t get it done. And it’s a shame.

Here’s hoping he gets his mojo back. Because until then, my expectations are shot.

Math is dead. And I’m again at the mercy of the white noise.